In October, we brought together a panel of research leaders to discuss The Good, The Bad, and The Scary of Research Democratization.
This panel featured our Notably Co-Founders, Allison Marshall and Brittany Fuller, alongside Carly Hatjes (Zoom), Roberta Dombrowski (User Interviews), and Aruna Balakrishnan (Lattice) to share their insights and expertise of all things Research Democratization.
Before we dig into the topics discussed during the panel, let’s introduce our guests, explain the concept of Research Democratization, and why it’s important.
We were so honored to have a panel of talented experts join us for this discussion.
Carly Hatjes is a Senior UX Researcher at Zoom where she focuses her time on Zoom Meetings and Zoom Team Chat. Before joining the Zoom team, she worked for Dropbox.
Roberta Dombrowski is the VP of User Research at User Interviews, which is a research recruitment platform. They specifically focus on research democratization where they train and enable non-researchers to conduct research.
Aruna Balakrishnan is the Director of Research at Lattice, an HR software company. Before Lattice, she led research at some big-name companies such as Google, Change.org, and Dropbox.
Research democratization is the concept of opening up the world of research to non-researchers who don’t have formal training in research methods. This means enabling other people in other roles across a company– such as product managers, product designers, marketers, and customer success– to do user research as well.
As research leaders, your goal should be to enable people and help them learn. However, it’s not just conducting research but also increasing access where others can view past results.
Research democratization has many benefits for an organization, which will get into. Unfortunately, there are more requests than there are researchers, so empowering others with the tools and knowledge needed makes it easier for organizations and people to get the data they’re looking for.
Now that we have a clear understanding of what “research democratization” is, let’s get into our discussion starting off with a key question: Is this just the new hot buzzword or is research democratization here to stay?
Of course, only time will tell if research democratization will stick around. We do know for sure that it’s a hot topic in the research field and there are tons of conversations happening on LinkedIn and Twitter.
The first part of this discussion was focused on these three questions:
Aruna Balakrishnan jumped in to share some of the fears she’s heard concerning the topic. First, some researchers feel that giving away their secret sauce could result in people devaluing the discipline. Another issue is that it could lower the quality of the research, which could cause organizations to make bad decisions based on bad data.
Roberta Dombrowski chimed in to say that she believes that the fear centers around ego. She points out that many researchers spend years honing their craft, and some might feel that research democratization could jeopardize their careers and identity.
However, she notes that the goal of research is to learn so the organization can make better decisions. She says researchers have two choices: either lean in or lean out. Regardless of your choice, decisions will still be made but you can either help guide them to make more informed decisions or let them go rogue.
Then the panel followed up by asking are new tools to blame for research democratization. Allison likened it to the previous conversations around UX design. Several years ago, there was a boom with new tools like Webflow and Figma making it more accessible and easier to learn and do UX design. Similar conversations occurred about whether everyone can/should design.
Carly Hatjes says that tools not only make research more accessible but make the process more fun.
Finally, the panel jumped into the subject of “is democratization right for your organization?”
Roberta sums it up by saying it depends on your organization– the team, the history, the decision-making model, and the perception of research are just a few of the factors that go into determining if research democratization is right for your org.
She also points out that it’s likely not a good fit for certain high-risk industries such as healthcare or finance where the quality of research is incredibly important. In these organizations, it’s best to bring in a trained specialist.
After wrapping up this section, the panel then moved to the main topic of the discussion.
In this part, the panel wanted to answer these three questions about research democratization:
Aruna starts off by saying she thinks the main driver of the movement is there’s a true acknowledgment of the need to hear from customers across the industry. User research is powerful because it helps brands develop and build products customers will value.
Roberta then shares some advice for researchers who get requests from their organization to implement research democratization. She says to ask these key questions to get down to the roots of why they're requesting it:
Essentially, you need to conduct research within your org to ensure it’s the right move and they’re not just hopping on the bandwagon because “research democratization” is the new buzzword in the industry.
Next, the session moved on to talk about what are some of the risks that are causing hesitation to research democratization in the industry.
This is a conversation that Roberta has with her team regularly at User Interviews. She’s determined that a lot of tension revolves around quality and speed. Researchers push back at the idea because they really value high-quality research, good data, and great decisions. Whereas, product managers and designers are looking for speed, which often sacrifices good quality research, finding quality participants, ethics, and governance.
The panel broke down reasonings for research democratization into two camps: all for it and not for it.
On the “all for it” side, these are the main reasons why research democratization would be positive:
On the other side, the “not for it” camp believes these are some concerns for implementing the concept of research democratization:
Aruna mentions that a lot of times, when a researcher leaves an organization, their knowledge leaves with them. You need documentation and a research repository to create tribal knowledge throughout the team. These steps can often get missed when non-researchers are doing research.
For example, If the knowledge lives in the PM’s head, or a doc somewhere we don’t know about and they leave the company, research may be repeated when it didn’t need to be done again. Are non-researchers reaching out directly to the customers, do they have the right sample size, going through the correct channels to recruit participants? Are we treating our participants and customers properly, are we respecting their time? Some of these things can get overlooked.
The panel wrapped up the conversation by discussing what major shifts need to occur in the mindset and process to help mitigate risks and make research democratization successful.
Roberta shared that the most important mindset shift needs to be in the enablement of the team. She also talks about the differences between doing research and being in research. Doing research is the act– you’re going out, you’re finding participants, and you’re conducting the study.
However, being a researcher is more about enabling others to be able to do research. It’s not about getting your value as a researcher which is a mindset shift. Leaders need to recognize that you’re not just being valuable when you’re running research yourself– you can still add value by enabling others to conduct research across the organization and enabling them to make better decisions.
Next, Aruna shared her thoughts on what guardrails need to be in place for research democratization to be successful. She says that it doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” approach. If certain teams in the organization are ready for it, then start there. As mentioned before, it all depends on the makeup and state of your org to determine how research democratization will work.
If you’re going to leverage the concept, it’s important to have a framework in place that helps guide the team to perform quality research. This can be rules or templates for them to follow to help create the structure needed to ensure people aren’t misusing it.
Then Carly chimed in with how she approaches the concept. When working with cross-functional partners, she focuses on transparency and education where she opens up her process and explains why she makes the choices she does.
The discussion then wraps up with the panelists sharing their final thoughts and advice on the concept of research democratization.
Aruna shared this piece of wisdom for anyone that’s nervous about it. Start small– for example, if you have a partner that you feel would be great at helping with a research project, then bring them on and see how it goes. Learn what works and what doesn’t and you can use this to inform how to expand the process to the entire org.
Then Carly followed it up by saying that it’s a good idea to take a more casual approach. Take down your researcher all and get hyped about finding new insights with your team. Harness the excitement and enthusiasm they feel when getting info from users, and just remember that it’s coming from a genuine place.
Finally, Roberta gave part of her process when creating enablement content and support for her team. She calls it a “know-do-feel”– what do you want non-researchers to know, do, and feel when conducting research?
Aruna, Roberta, and Carly had some incredible insights and actionable advice on how to navigate conversations about research democratization and how to get started with it in your organization.
This live discussion is packed to the brim with even more valuable information that we couldn’t cover everything in this post. Click here to watch the full recording of the panel discussion.
At Notably, we’re very much aligned with the takeaways from our expert panel and think there is so much to benefit from research enablement. Here are some ways you can use Notably to empower research champions as you tackle democratization in your organization:
Create templates to set your team up for success
You can create a starting point in any Notably project for research plans, interview guides, and insights. So as the researcher, so you’re confident they have a high-quality and consistent structure to work from.
Use Global tags for rigorous coding and analysis
The research expert can set up a consistent set of global tags across all of your projects in Notably. This enables your team with the ability to code data rigorously during analysis and makes those data points searchable and accessible to the rest of the org.
Backward analyze any insights or themes in Notably
Unlike other analysis tools, in Notably all insights and themes are always connected back to the original raw data source. As the research expert, you can trust but verify how research findings were concluded.
To find out more ways Notably can help your organization on your journey to democratize or empower others with research enablement, book a 30m discovery session with us.